(Warning: major spoilers.)
For such a venerated director and film historian, Martin Scorsese is remarkably coy about his cinematic influences. It was only grudgingly acknowledged that his last feature, The Departed, was a by-the-book remake of the Hong Kong procedural Infernal Affairs (possibly because the latter is a better movie). Now, with Shutter Island, Scorsese's defenders -- Glenn "Don't Call Him 'Marty'" Kenny, et al. -- are bending over backwards with praise of the film's "movie-ness" at the expense of trivialities like genuine depth of feeling. Furthermore, nobody seems to realize that this story has been quite literally done before.
As with The Sixth Sense -- the last time I remember audiences smacking their noggins in astonishment over a climactic twist while I slumped in my seat resembling Joseph Cotten at the opera in Citizen Kane -- there's no way to critique Shutter Island or reveal its influences without giving away the game, so read no further if you don't want to be spoiled.
In partial fairness to Scorsese, Shutter Island is adapted from Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel of the same name, so the blame starts with Lehane. The protagonist, Boston federal marshal Teddy Daniels (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film), arrives at the titular island with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of a violent patient -- a war widow who drowned her three children -- from the mental institution located at an old military fortress atop a remote island. Daniels, himself battling demons from his tour in World War II, finds both patients and staff behaving oddly, particularly the head of the institution Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley). Eventually, Daniels learns that he himself is a patient on Shutter Island, traumatized not only from his war experiences but from killing his wife (Michelle Williams, appearing in dreams, hallucinations and flashbacks). It turns that she's the one who murdered their own children, and that Daniels, who actually was a federal marshal before his crack-up, is in a state of denial. The entire story turns out to be an elaborate bit of role-playing, staged by Dr. Crawley, in the hope of breaking through to Daniels. Crawley hopes that by pretending Daniels has the run of the place, letting him imagine himself a hero and solving the "mystery," that he'll heal himself in order to avoid the more common 1954-era treatments like lobotomy.
For the first half of the movie, I wondered why this story felt so familiar. Then, when Max von Sydow appeared as another psychiatrist on the island (looking 80 as he has for the last 40 years), something clicked: I thought of von Sydow; then The Exorcist; then William Peter Blatty; and finally Blatty's The Ninth Configuration. I've written about Blatty before, but to offer more details: his original 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, 'Killer' Kane (eventually rewritten by the author in 1978, as Bill Ryan points out) was directed by Blatty himself in what became a cult 1980 movie called The Ninth Configuration. The protagonist, army psychiatrist Col. Vincent Kane (played by Stacy Keach in the film), arrives at a mental institution located at a remote castle in the Oregonian wilderness to treat its patients, all war veterans recovering from various traumas experienced during the Vietnam War. It is eventually learned that Kane, himself battling demons experienced in Vietnam, is a mental patient himself, brought to the institution by Col. Fell (Ed Flanders), who lets Kane act out the charade in a bit of role-playing, hoping that by pretending he has the run of the place, helping others and imagining himself a hero Kane will heal himself.
There are some differences. For starters, both Blatty's book and film are very funny. The Ninth Configuration is structured initially like a Catch-22-type absurdist farce, each of Kane's patients given distinct personalities. Eventually the focus narrows to one, Scott Wilson's troublemaker Cutshaw, also a veteran as well as a former astronaut who had a nervous breakdown prior to launch. ("There's nothing up there!") Kane and Cutshaw square off over theological arguments that are Blatty's bread-and-butter, and ultimately the movie closes on a fine line between the pretentious and the profound.
In contrast, Shutter Island feigns profundity as all of Lehane's novels do: by exploiting children (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, etc.). The screen version grimly follows with more of the same, grafting on to what is in essence a B-thriller not only familial tragedy but imagery from the Holocaust as well. (The latter appears for no other reason -- besides serving as a cheap red-herring -- than perhaps a means of fulfilling Scorsese's own bit of role-playing as the original director of Schindler's List.) As usual, Mark Ruffalo provides some shading to a thinly-written role; but Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley and others are wasted as other patients: they're plot points rather than personalities.
Yet the biggest difference in Shutter Island's strikingly similar premise is it's not any fun. Scorsese directs with mechanical precision, like a skilled magician growing bored with his own tricks. He's free of pretentions, unlike bogus faith-healer M. Night Shyamalan, whose own "originality" in The Sixth Sense was a crock to those who had seen Jacob's Ladder or read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (i.e., hardly anyone). But no longer does Scorsese set any challenges for himself, the way Hitchcock did to keep from getting rusty: dutifully he goes through the motions of a plot that echoes not only The Ninth Configuration but also The Game and every other movie where Things Are Not As They Seem. Whereas The Departed was at least funny, Shutter Island takes itself with deadly seriousness. It's not as appalling as Scorsese's overheated Cape Fear remake, but easily his worst movie since.
And DiCaprio? It's always worth a laugh to see the hype machine's increasingly desperate efforts to compare his partnership-in-mediocrity with Scorsese (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island) to the zenith of De Niro's collaborations (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Casino). I don't dislike Leo. He's always likable, and truly in his element playing guileless shysters like Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can. DiCaprio is at his most effective when gliding along the surface of a story, less convincing when forced to dig for depth. The more out of depth he is, the more frenetic his performance becomes. In Shutter Island he looks like a drama student in a high school production of The Big Sleep, and in light of what we learn, Ruffalo's performance (praising Daniels' abilities as a detective, calling him "boss") is amusing in retrospect. DiCaprio telegraphs everything, however, without gradations. Even the harshest critics of this film are praising his emoting in the Climactic Revelation, but if you've heard one "Nooooooooooo!" you've heard them all.